Brethren, I count not myself yet to have apprehended: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.—Php_3:13-14.
1. The Apostle here speaks of his past and his present life under the well-known figure of a race. Before his conversion he was like a man running a race, a race of his own, with his eyes set on a lower goal. And then Christ apprehended him, caught hold of him, turned him round, and set him running towards another goal; and he is pursuing that goal yet, and it is still a long way off. “Not as though I had already attained.” In the days when he was a young, proud Pharisee, the rising hope of his party, petted, praised, and flattered for his zeal and cleverness, he had regarded himself as well-nigh faultless. The ideal of Pharisaism was not very exalted or sublime, and if you are content to aim low you soon get abundantly satisfied with yourself. But Christ had come and given him a model which was not so easy to follow. Christ had shown him an ideal which soared mountain-high above him. He had been pursuing that for years, and it was still out of his reach.
Ever since the day when Christ called to him from on high—stopped him at the gate of Damascus, struck from his hand the weapon of persecution, and shrivelled up in his bosom, as by a lightning flash, the commission of the High Priest—ever since that day, which had turned his former gains into losses, and made him count his own righteousness as mere refuse for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord, he has been running the race set before him, not as uncertainly, but with a definite adherence to its rules and a resolute determination for success; not counting himself to have apprehended, not relaxing his efforts as he nears the goal, but straining every sinew and nerve to the uttermost, if so be he may at last reach the winning-post and attain the imperishable wreath which hangs thereon. “This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind”—that part of the course which has already been traversed—and reaching forth unto, straining every power to the uttermost after, those things which are before—that remainder of space which lies still between me and the goal—I press toward the mark—I press on according to (by the rule and direction of) the mark or goal—for the prize of the high calling—what is elsewhere spoken of as the heavenly calling—of God in Christ Jesus.
In olden times games were held in Greece in honour of its gods. They were held around the tombs of heroes and of brave men, as part of a religious festival. Every fifth year such games were held at Elis, in Olympia (the periods between were called Olympiads, and the years were counted from them), and every third year similar games were held at Corinth, and called Isthmian games, from the isthmus that there joins the peninsula to the mainland. Men came from every part of Greece to contend in these games, or to witness them; but no one who was not a true-born Greek was allowed to share in them. The spectators sat on benches, raised one above the other, round an open space strewed with sand, called the stadium. It was about six hundred feet long; and in this open space the games took place. They consisted of chariot races, horse races, and foot races; there were wrestling matches and boxing matches, contests in throwing the heaviest weights to the longest distance, contests also between singers, painters, sculptors, poets, and musicians. Ten judges were set apart as umpires of the games; they were chosen ten months beforehand, and received purple dresses in which they sat on raised chairs, to watch that the rules of the games were observed, and to award the prizes. The champions were the picked men of Greece: they prepared themselves with the utmost care for some months beforehand, knowing that they should have to meet others perfect in their own line. They had to observe the greatest temperance that they might be in full health, choosing such food and drink as would make their muscles firm and tough, not heavy and fleshy. They had to practise their exercises constantly, bathing frequently, and rubbing their bodies with oil to keep their joints supple. In short, there was no chance of winning a prize unless the candidate was willing to make his preparation the business of his life.1 [Note: R. Twigg, Sermons, 284.]
2. There are some people who define Christian perfection in this life as a rounded and complete thing, as the reaching of the goal—the very thing Paul declared he had not attained. They define it as though the life had reached its final form once for all, as though we are perfectly carved into our final beauty and already dwell in perfect holiness. Such a conception must of necessity lead to self-complacency, and close the vision of a higher goal in the present life. But that is not the meaning of this passage. According to Paul, as many as be perfect have the vision of a far-away goal. Christian perfection, according to this criterion, is that stage of life which realizes most intensely its imperfection. When a man thinks he is perfect and complete, he is a great distance from perfection. When a man comes to the conclusion that there is nothing more to do for his life, you may depend upon it that there is a great deal to do. The perfect man as here defined is the man that is least satisfied with himself, the man that sees vast stretches before him to be traversed, the man that knows there are shining heights yet to climb, that there are glories unspeakable ahead.
Sir Joshua Reynolds could not look at any picture remaining in his studio without wishing to retouch it here and there. The forms on the canvas were not as fair as the visions in the painter’s mind. Such dissatisfaction always gives ground for the hope that “the best is yet to be.” The same principle holds good in the spiritual life. The outlook is ominous where there is not a profound self-dissatisfaction.1 [Note: T. H. Champion.]
St. Paul with his Back to the Past
1. St. Paul was a man who had to bear about with him throughout his life the bitter memory of a misdirected past. He had become an Apostle, the chief agent in the propagation of the Christian religion; but he could not escape the memory of days when he had done everything to thwart the religion which he now confessed. He had persecuted the Church and stood by while its first martyr was stoned to death. As he thought of these things, they paralysed his apostleship. Who was he that he should be a leader? “I am not worthy to be called an apostle.” He was, however, sane enough to see that, though this past could not be effaced, it could be atoned for. A habit of mind, he concluded, must be cultivated which lets the dead past bury its dead, drops one’s paralysing mistakes just where they are, and leaves one free to press forward to the high calling which lies before.
But the chief thing that St. Paul had in his mind when he spoke about forgetting the things that are behind was not his past sins but rather his past attainments. He had already made some progress in the life of faith. Most of us would say he had made a great deal, and would feel almost envious of him, thinking, Would God we were only half as far on as he was! What patience, what courage, what zeal, what self-denying love, what a readiness to bear the cross, what untiring faith he had manifested in weariness and watching, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness! Now, that was just what St. Paul especially wished to forget. Past attainments in grace were not, in his view, things to dwell on; they were only stages to be left behind.
In that old foot-race on the isthmus of Corinth the men who competed for the prize did not stop every now and then to look back with complacency upon that portion of the course which they had already traversed. Nor, when they had run a certain distance, did they sit down and say, “It is enough.” The coveted crown would never have been theirs, had they done so. Moreover they would have been disgraced in the estimation of all the onlookers. They forgot the things which were behind, and reached forth unto those which were before. Even so in his life-course did St. Paul.1 [Note: A. C. Price, Fifty Sermons, iv. 62.]
2. Strictly speaking, the continuity of life cannot be divided at any point, and what is behind put away as forgotten, rolled up, folded as a garment and laid aside as if no more a part of us. We cannot deal with the past in this way, nor would it be well with us if we could. Up to whatever point we have run our race, we have not merely, like the swift runner, passed over ground to be forgotten, we have also accumulated experience, and added to the sum of our life moments which can never be forgotten, which have entered into its texture, and given it direction and colour which it will more or less always keep. We cannot forget the past in this sense, and of course St. Paul did not mean that we should. No man knew human life, or all the depths of the spiritual life, better than the Apostle. He knew very well, as we all know, that there must be so far a conscious continuity in life, a thread of loving association and memory binding it all up, making it what it is of happiness and misery to any human being. There are dark days which still leave their lengthening shadows upon us, it may be from a distant past, which we cannot escape. And again, there are dear and ever-bright faces that shine out upon us from the shadows, and there is the echo of loving voices, long silent, sounding in our hearts, never to die away. All this gives the past an irrevocable hold upon us.
“The past is myself …” cries Robert Louis Stevenson. “In the past is my present fate; and in the past also is my real life.” Truly it was no shallow thinker who said, “Poor is the man who has no yesterday.”1 [Note: H. Dudden, Christ and Christ’s Religion, 249.]
The winter leaves or bud-scales of a tree leave behind them, when they drop off, a peculiar mark or scar on the bark, just as the summer leaves do when they fall. On every branch a series of these scars, in the shape of rings closely set together, may be seen, indicating the points where each growing shoot entered on the stage of rest. And so every experience through which we pass, every act we perform, goes into the very substance of our being, and we can never be after it what we were before it. We cannot undo our deeds, or altogether escape the consequences that have followed them. The past is indelible, and the memory of it remains like a scar upon the soul.2 [Note: H. Macmillan, The Ministry of Nature, 232.]
3. True forgetting really means finer memory; it is displacing one memory by another, by a stronger one, an antidotal one. It means concentrating on the second phase so that the first is weakened and neutralized, and fades out like a well-treated ink-stain. It is removing a weed from the garden of thought and then planting a live, sturdy flower in its stead. It is cultivating new interests, new relations, new activities. Time helps wonderfully, but especially when we go into partnership with her.
One great truth for us all, says Goethe, is not that the past is sullied, but that the future is unsullied. It is in this sense that we should forget the things that are behind and reach on to the things that are before. I may be reminded that to talk about forgetting what we cannot help remembering is a contradiction in terms. So it is; but, thank God, it is not a contradiction in experience. Others besides the Apostle Paul have come to realize that literal remembrance and moral forgetfulness can exist side by side in the same memory and heart. I have done things in the past, sometimes from want of thought, sometimes from want of heart—things I remember with sorrow and contrition. But I have repented of them, and prayed for grace to bring forth fruits meet for repentance. And God has enabled me to realize His forgiveness so effectually that to-day the sins, while remembered, are morally forgotten.1 [Note: A. Shepherd, Bible Studies in Living Subjects, 9.]
A great editor once said: “The true secret of editing is to know what to put into the waste-basket.” Forgetting is the soul’s place for losing discarded thoughts, depressing memories, mean ambitions, false standards, and low ideals.2 [Note: W. J. Jordan, The Crown of Individuality, 123.]
4. Fine forgetfulness is the condition of moral progress. We must be perpetually cutting ourselves free from the past, if we are to push on to a larger and better future. The artist forgets his early failures, the author his first grotesque experiments in literature, and the saint his first stumbling steps, for the same reason—a reason which is imperative—that no progress is possible to a mind clogged by the weight of past errors. And herein lies the final justification of Christ’s doctrine: we are allowed to forget only on condition that we aspire. St. Paul forgets the past only because, and as long as, he is pressing to the mark of his high calling in Christ Jesus. The sinful woman is not condemned because she sins no more. The one anodyne of past sin is the constant exertion of the soul intent upon the struggle of virtue. Relax that struggle, and all the past will rush back upon you like a desolating blackness. Consecrate yourself to that struggle, and God will permit you to forget the past; indeed, in the very act of struggling you will forget it.
On the eve of Waterloo it was necessary for Napoleon to warn his soldiers that they had forced marches in front of them—they knew what he meant, for they had experienced these before, and they must be on the lookout for them again; but that was only one side of the picture, and knowing that he had come up to a turning-point and a crisis, when a decisive victory must, if possible, be won, he selected two appropriate facts out of their past and brought them forward for his purpose, deliberately omitting and forgetting other and uglier passages that were behind. “Soldiers!” he exclaimed, “this day is the anniversary of Marengo and of Friedland, which twice decided the destiny of Europe.” This was the way to make their blood tingle and to fire their courage; this was a picture of their power at its best, and it was this picture that must go with them into the morrow. Waterloo was to be another Friedland or Marengo.1 [Note: Spencer Jones, Now and Then, 18.]
George MacDonald makes one of his characters say to another, “Let bygones be bygones.” “Deed no,” is the reply; “what’s the use of bygones but to learn from them how to meet the bycomes?” Yes, the only right use of “the bygones” is to teach us how to meet “the bycomes.” If we remember our mistakes at all, let it only be to retrieve them, and organize fresh victory out of them.2 [Note: S. L. Wilson, Helpful Words for Daily Life, 258.]
Where shall I hide the memories of my pain?
They lie like pictures on my spirit’s walls.
I draw the curtains ’gainst the wind and rain,
But over that past world no curtain falls
To shroud the things behind.
I go to sleep, but sleep itself reveals
The phantoms of a day that long is fled,
And through the land of shadows softly steals
The figured presence of the loved and dead
To wake the things behind.
Would I not lose some glory by forgetting?
Have I not treasures drawn from days of old?
There is a sadness in the daylight’s setting;
But who would miss the splendour of the gold
To part with things behind?
Keep then the gold, my soul, and hide the setting;
Thy Father shows to thee a path of peace;
Thou canst forget thy pain without forgetting
The forms and voices that can never cease
To bless the things behind.
Turn memory into hope, and thou shalt see
The past illumined by the future’s glow;
Put forth thy hand to touch the life to be,
And thou shalt find the joys of long ago
No more the things behind.
There is a death of memory that is brought
Not by oblivion, but by coming light,—
It fades as childhood fades in manhood’s thought;
It dies as starlight dies at morning’s sight,
Not needing things behind.
May this forgetfulness, my heart, be thine;
Not the great deadness of an outgrown sorrow,
But the deep trust that ceases to repine,
Since yesterday shall come again to-morrow
Bearing the things behind.
Fields of the past to thee shall be no more
The burial-ground of friendships once in bloom,
But seed-plots of a harvest on before,
And prophecies of life with larger room
For things that are behind.
Live thou in God, and thy dead past shall be
Alive for ever with eternal day;
And planted on His bosom thou shalt see
The flowers revived that withered on the way
Amid the things behind.1 [Note: George Matheson, Sacred Songs, 125.]
St. Paul with his Eye on the Goal
1. Here is a man who starts right away with an object in life—something to strive for, something to achieve, something worth achieving. He has a goal to which his whole existence tends. And that goal is Jesus Christ. His ruling passion is to get nearer to Jesus Christ, to be more like Jesus Christ, to grow up into Jesus Christ, to do the work of Jesus Christ. That is his dominant purpose. He aims. He gives his life a centre. He strives to bring everything—all his faculties and powers, all his experiences and activities—into relation with that centre.
“Toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” The goal and the prize are not the same thing. The goal—that was to be like Christ; the prize—that was to be for ever happy with Christ. We all desire the prize; we all hope when this world fades from us, to enter into eternal joy; we all hope to be in heaven at last, with crowns on our heads, and palms in our hands, and the song of the Redeemed on our lips. And we are all pressing forward, each one on his own way, one on the way of Pride, another on the way of Ambition, another on the way of Pleasure, another on the way of Covetousness, all on the way of Selfishness. But there is only one road by which we can attain to it, the road of likeness to Christ. Like Christ? What word will sum up that likeness? The answer is unselfishness. Jesus Christ was the one absolutely unselfish Being; and if we would be like Him, we must learn to put off self, to crucify self, to annihilate self, to lose self in Him.
Now Paul had “seen the Lord”; and henceforth for him “to live was Christ,” and to die “gain.” Christ was to him both the end and the way—that is to say, his heart’s desire was that he might have Christ’s mind, Christ’s affections, Christ’s joy, for his own. If even the sight of a good man, in any field of work to which we are invited, can humble us to lift us up, how much more a true sight of Jesus Christ, in whom was no sin, in whom was all goodness. If our standard of what we should attempt, and what we would become, can be altered by our view of our neighbour’s character and course, how greatly can our standard be altered and raised by our view of One who is “above all,” to be blessed for ever by all? To Paul, Jesus Christ presented both that glorious moral Image to which he would be likened, and that potent moral Help by which he could attain to it. The Apostle had seen in Him the beauty and the power of God.
Have you missed in your aim? Well, the mark is still shining;
Did you faint in the race? Well, take breath for the next;
Did the clouds drive you back? But see yonder their lining;
Were you tempted and fell? Let it serve for a text.
As each year hurries by, let it join that procession
Of skeleton shapes that march down to the past,
While you take your place in the line of progression,
With your eyes on the heavens, your face to the blast.
I tell you the future can hold no terrors
For any sad soul while the stars revolve,
If he will but stand firm on the grave of his errors,
And instead of regretting, resolve, resolve!
It is never too late to begin rebuilding,
Though all into ruins your life seems hurled.
For look! how the light of a new day is gilding
The worn, wan face of the bruised old world.1 [Note: Ella W. Wilcox.]
2. The Apostle’s gaze was not only onward but also upward. What attracted him was the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. He saw the crown, the crown of life that fadeth not away, hanging bright before his eyes. What, said he, shall tempt me from that path of which yon crown is the end? Let the golden apples be thrown in my way; I cannot even look at them or stay to spurn them with my feet. Let the sirens sing on either side, and seek to charm me with their evil beauty, to leave the holy road; but I must not, and I will not. The end is glorious; what if the running be laborious? When there is such a prize to be had, who will grudge a struggle?
Whymper, in his Scrambles Amongst the Alps, says that when you are on the summit of Mont Blanc “you look down upon the rest of Europe. There is nothing to look up to; all is below; there is no one point for the eye to rest upon. The man who is there is somewhat in the position of one who has attained all that he desires—he has nothing to aspire to; his position must needs be unsatisfactory. But upon the summit of the Verte there is not this objection. You see valleys, villages, fields; you see mountains interminable rolling away, lakes resting in their hollows; you hear the tinkling of the sheep-bells as it rises through the clear morning air, and the roar of the avalanches as they descend to the valleys; but, above all, there is the great white dome, with its shining crest high above, with its sparkling glaciers, that descend between buttresses which support them; with its brilliant snows, purer and yet purer the farther they are removed from this sinful world.”
3. The climax and fulfilment of Christian hope are in Jesus Christ. What the Apostle coveted was the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. The “calling” exists before the race begins. It is the invitation, the sanction, the authority by which the race is begun, the goal fixed, and the prize awarded. “The high calling” is called in the Epistle to the Hebrews “the heavenly calling.” The phrase implies that this calling comes from, and leads to, the highest sphere to which man can attain. It is man’s highest ideal, and he cannot attain to anything beyond it. And this highest possibility for man is treasured up in Jesus Christ; for it is the “high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
The prize is granted when the goal is reached; and all our powers are given us that we may reach the goal. Force of character is ours for the sake of what it may enable us to accomplish; to rest content with being Christians is to sacrifice the end of the Christian calling in delight with the sufficiency of the means. Out of all our satisfactions there comes a lofty discontent. The power of saintliness opens the heart to saintly longings; the impulse of Christian self-sacrifice is an impulse to a definite end. A satisfying religious faith, a sufficient religious purpose—these are the noblest gifts of God to man on earth; but there is more beyond. The purpose is to be accomplished, the trust is to be fulfilled; and it is given to each of us to aid in the consummation.
Theodore Cuyler tells how with some friends he once ascended Mount Washington by the old trail over the slippery rocks. A weary, disappointed company they were when they reached the cabin on the summit, and found it shut in by the clouds. But towards evening a mighty wind swept away the banks of mist, the body of the blue heavens stood out in its clearness, and before them was revealed the magnificent landscape, stretching away to the Atlantic Ocean. So faith’s stairways are often over steep and slippery rocks, often through blinding storms; but if Christ dwell in the heart, God never loses His hold of us, and in due time He brings us out into the clear shining after rain. To such a career the growing years only bring nearer the triumph, the supreme victory of our lives.
St. Paul with his Might in the Race
1. Christian perfection can be reached only by definite and strenuous endeavour. Faith and purpose are furnished us to animate our efforts; they will never be accepted as substitutes for performance. An ignoble contentment with imperfection often clothes itself in the garb of piety; the mystery of spiritual growth is pleaded as an excuse for inactivity; quietism is regarded as a more reverent response than effort to the provisions of the gospel. The same indolent trust in change which makes the inexperienced youth fancy that new companionships and new circumstances are all that is needed for his reformation makes many a man think that death is the spiritual perfecter. But how has all past Christian progress been attained? Not by a barren confidence in the unknown resources of God, but by “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” It is impossible to make a man good who will not endeavour to be good. Equally impossible is it to give him blessedness. You cannot make him permanently happy who will not secure his own happiness by efforts to be good. The more you do for him, the more exacting and the more feeble he becomes. Rousing himself for worthy ends, his feebleness and exactingness are gone; the freshness of new interests breathes joy around him.
“Stretching forward to the things that are before.” The word here used is an exceedingly strong word. It means not merely “reaching forth,” but “stretching forth,” implying intense and sustained effort. The word used is a very strong compound word, so compounded as to give it a maximum of force. It is a picture of the runner as he “stretches forward,” with the intensity of his effort, every fibre stretched towards the goal.1 [Note: J. Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 202.]
I count this thing to be grandly true,
That a noble deed is a step toward God,
Lifting the soul from the common clod
To a purer air and a broader view.
We rise by the things that are under our feet,
By what we have mastered of good or gain,
By the pride deposed and the passion slain,
And the vanquished ills that we hourly meet.
2. There must be a concentration of all the faculties on the great end of life. Much that is desirable in itself has to be subordinated to the supreme purpose. Paul said: “This one thing I do.”
Take him for all in all, Spencer was intellectually one of the grandest and morally one of the noblest men that have ever lived. His life was devoted to a single purpose—the establishing of truth and righteousness as he understood them. The value of a life of self-sacrifice for a lofty ideal is inestimable at all times, and is especially so in the present day of advertisement, push, and getting on in the world. This will endure whatever may be the fate of his philosophical opinions. “In the whole story of the searchers for truth,” said the Times, just after his death, “there is no instance of devotion to noble aims surpassing his—courage, baffling ill-health and proof against years of discouragement, unwearied patience, wise economy of powers, and confidence in the future recognition of the value of his work.”1 [Note: D. Duncan, The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, 511.]
In a letter written by Whitefield to a friend on the day of his ordination, occurs the following sublime and comprehensive yet simple expression: “I hope the good of souls will be my only principle of action. I call heaven and earth to witness, that when the bishop laid his hand upon me, I gave myself up like a martyr for Him who hung upon the cross for me.”
3. Endeavour and concentration will ensure steady progress. “I press on,” says Paul. There is an almost breathless ardour in the words. We could imagine a sculptor fashioning a figure suggested by this expression. It would be a form with head outstretched; with eyes wide open, straining the sight to catch a glimpse of the distant goal; with hands clenched; with one foot stretched forward, while the other but lightly touched the ground; with the muscles standing out from the flesh like ropes—such a statue is suggested by the phrase, “I press on.”2 [Note: H. Windross, The Life Victorious, 250.]
“Having decided what was to be done,” observes Emerson of Napoleon, “he did that with might and main. He put out all his strength. He risked everything and spared nothing—neither ammunition, nor money, nor troops, nor generals, nor himself.”
One look behind; but not for idle dreaming;
Hope beckons on to heights that greet the sky;
While voices speak of Time’s brief hours redeeming,
To nerve the heart for toil and victory.
One look behind; it may be one of sorrow,
O’er broken vows, and duties left undone;
But wait, my soul, on God; then, with each morrow,
His strength’ning grace receive thy race to run.
One look behind; but not for vain regretting
O’er golden hours that soothed life’s fret and care;
Forward! be still thy cry, the past forgetting,
Save that which bears thee up on wings of prayer.
One look behind; sweet mercy’s path reviewing;
One goal ahead, one faith, one hope above;
Up then, with pilgrim staff heaven’s way pursuing,
To reach the radiant home of endless love!1 [Note: J. P. Wood.]
Abbott (L.), Signs of Promise, 55.
Dawson (W. J.), The Evangelistic Note, 115.
Henson (H. H.), Ad Rem, 54.
Liddon (H. P.), University Sermons, 25.
Liddon (H. P.), Sermons on Some Words of St. Paul, 246.
Little (J.), Glorying in the Lord, 199, 242.
Mackennal (A.), The Life of Christian Consecration, 154.
Macmillan (H.), The Ministry of Nature, 211.
Macnutt (F. B.), The Riches of Christ, 20.
Magee (W. C.), Growth in Grace, 259.
Morgan (G. H.), Modern Knights-Errant, 144.
Morrison (G. H.), Flood-Tide, 177.
Percival (J.), Some Helps for School Life, 92.
Smith (W. C.), Sermons, 265.
Thomas (J.), Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 193.
Trench (R. C.), Sermons, 310.
Tulloch (J.), Sundays at Balmoral, 112.
Vaughan (C. J.), The Wholesome Words of Jesus Christ, 77.
Wilkinson (G. H.), The Invisible Glory, 119.
Wilson (J. M.), Sermons, 1.
Woolsey (T. D.), The Religion of the Present and the Future, 197.
Christian World Pulpit, xxii. 237 (Hood); lx. 52 (Morgan); lxxv. 86 (Champion); lxxviii. 118 (Howell).